Saturday, August 30, 2014

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Child Protection in Malawi: An Interview with Thomas Moyo

Think Africa Press speaks to the coordinator of EveryChild's successful child protection project.
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Thomas Moyo in Malawi. Photograph by Georgie Scott, EveryChild.

The extent of Malawi's problems with child labour and child brides has been well-documented – 1 in 5 children live without a biological parent, and 50% of girls are forced into  early marriages. But amidst severe economic problems and a reliance on donor money for 40% of the government's budget, tackling these issues has taken a backseat. 

Thomas Moyo, 45, however, is a man on a mission. Project Co-ordinator for EveryChild Malawi's Bulala Child Protection Project, Moyo is using his own experience of being abused to change the lives of young people suffering similar plights.

And the determined father-of-five's project has seen impressive results. In the catchment areas of the Bulala project, the number of child brides has been drastically reduced by up to 75% and practices of child labour have also decreased. This has been made possible through the systems established by Thomas, EveryChild Malawi and the partnerships they’ve created within local communities. Moyo speaks to Think Africa Press about the project and the challenges it faces. 

What precipitated your pursuit for change?

I joined EveryChild Malawi because of my past experiences as a child. At one point I was separated from my mum and during that time my father married a second wife, whom I lived with for a year. It was then that I was subjected to abuse and I experienced what it is like to be a child without parental care. What used to happen is that my stepmum would give me a lot of work during school time and this prevented me from attending classes. At the same time I would go hungry, and even work without food – you can imagine how this impacted on my life. I tried to runaway but was caught and beaten.

After going through that experience I decided to work for a charity and work for the cause of children without parental care. I do the work that I do to contribute towards improving their lives.

The custom of using young girls to settle debts is known as Kupimbira, what are the gender stereotypes of women in Malawi?

Girls in most parts of the northern region are taken as a source of ‘labora’ – heads of cattle. They are sources of income and are looked at as something that will later support the family from which they are coming. You have this traditional practice of Kupimbira and what it means is: “I have run out of money, I can borrow money from somebody and then if I'm not able to pay it back, I can offer my daughter.”

For girls as young as 14, you can be married to every older man just because your parents were unable to raise money to service their debts. Similarly we have the practice of ‘bride price’, where young girls are sometimes forced to marry just because their parents want to get some kind of payment for their daughter.

With EveryChild Malawi, I'm working on challenging these traditions to make sure that girls are not treated like goods – they are human beings who have the right to choose when, and to whom, they marry.

Culturally, it seems these ideas are very much ingrained in the Malawian way of life, especially in the north of the country. How difficult has it been for you to combat these beliefs?

You're right – when we were first introducing the debate to change these practices it was difficult because they've been in existence for some time and, in fact, when you visit these communities from the outside, you look in and think 'maybe it helps to cement relationships as marriages don't easily break'. But it is the girl who is really suffering. And for many of these young girls, they have been doing so in silence. So we try to get them to open up, while at first they show some resistance eventually we engage with them.

We also engage with local leaders and we've set up community-based child protection committees whom we train on the UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child) to make sure communities are able to appreciate that children and girls are also human beings who need protection. And through working with local leadership, we have mothers groups with women who've suffered similar abuses in their childhood and now want to challenge the casual practice affecting girls, so they can continue with their studies.

So yes, we're working with a number of partners which has enabled us to exert influence on this culture and now we've seen that the number of child marriages is reducing.

Are there any age restrictions for sex and marriage in Malawi?

Malawi is adopting the UK system and we have laws which state what constitutes defilement/rape, and the age for entry into marriage is now pegged at 16. As a civil society organisation, we are trying to reason with the government because there are some girls getting married younger than 16. There is often confusion in the court of law because the constitution says "the state shall discourage", which doesn't necessarily mean the state does not allow marriage between 13 and 16. So this is already an issue we're discussing.

However, in 2010, we had the Child Care, Protection and Justice Act which, if fully implemented, is meant to protect all children, especially girls. Someone involved in raping or defiling a girl is now going to face stiffer punishments and we hope this is going to deter men and boys from sexually abusing girls.

How is the Malawian government supporting your work and the battle to solve these problems?

The government is running a number of projects such as social protection programmes including Food for Work and farm input subsidies that are targeting the most vulnerable. But Malawi, like any other government, is financially constrained and is not able to meet the demands of the many desperate people in the country. We're talking about one of the poorest countries in Africa. Recent statistics show that 52% are very poor and of that 40% are extremely poor, living off less than $0.33 a day. The government is trying but the problems are still massive. The impact of HIV/AIDS has been devastating on our fragile economy, and Malawi also depends on tobacco for almost 80% of its foreign income and recently it hasn't been doing well on the world market – that too has also made life difficult for the farming community.

And for children who are victims of child labour?

Child labour exists predominantly in the agricultural sector and is rampant. EveryChild Malawi, I'm happy to say, has been working with the government to create a child labour policy to eradicate it, which came into being in October 2010. We're working with a number of partners and now we can co-ordinate a number of responses. For example, in our catchment areas we have community-based child protection committees and these have been very effective. They're comprised of community-based volunteers who know where a child is coming from and can identify at a very early stage children who have been involved in child labour.

One of the strategies we promote is counselling, as well as guidance for the guardians of these children on the impact of child labour. We are slowly changing the attitudes of employers. We also conduct child labour inspections, we go out into the farms and check if there are any boys doing work that they're not suppose to be, so we have been able to tremendously reduce the number of children engaged in child labour.

What happens to the children you rescue?

There are two interventions we can do: if the child is still a minor and can go back to school, we support them to re-enrol and we provide crisis care and support which comprises school materials such as exercise books, pens, uniforms etc. This is only short-term and we provide the child's extended family with livelihood training programmes so they can support the child in the long-term.

We also try to support young people who are not able to go back to school. For example, maybe there's a boy who's been out of school for two/three years by the time we've found them and they can't return to that same class because of stigma and ridicule. We try to arrange additional educational support for them so they can have an informal education such as vocational training where we teach them skills such as carpentry and bricklaying. This ensures that they can live an independent life and can earn a better wage than working with their exploiters.

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